Times of crisis tend to leave permanent imprints on the people that live through them. For personal crises, these marks are often similarly personal — idiosyncrasies, habits, quirks. But when the crisis is global, the marks are often left on whole societies, and sometimes on the entire world.
These global scars shape consumer behavior in large ways, changing expectations and norms in ways that seemed unthinkable before they happened. These changes happen fast, and can redefine trends and preferences, or turn entire industries upside down. For brands that aren’t ready to pivot in response, these changes can mean a slow slide into irrelevance. For challenger brands looking for their big chance, though, these changes represent opportunities to reshape the market.
Of course, things are never that easy. One of the hallmarks of these Black Swan events, to use a term popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is that they’re unpredictable. How do brands prepare to take advantage of new opportunities when it’s impossible to say what those opportunities look like? And what about the ethics of turning a crisis into an opportunity?
Right, Wrong, or In-Between?
Let’s start by making one thing clear — a crisis is not a marketing opportunity. Global challenges are not the time to think about winning market share, or growing profits, or taking advantage of the situation. It’s not a time to change pricing to jump on demand or try to corner the market.
Almost no one, for example, would say that it’s a good decision for companies to raise the prices of essential supplies after a natural disaster. Aside from the terrible optics that creates, it’s also extremely unethical in the eyes of most consumers — and even most businesspeople.
So this isn’t an article about taking advantage of those kinds of opportunities. Instead, this is about the opportunities that come after. Once everyone is safe, the crisis has passed, and life starts returning to a new normal. That new normal is where the opportunities for challenger brands lie.
What Is the New Normal?
Not every crisis brings about an immediate and obvious change. Some changes are subtle. Some only affect certain industries. Some are difficult to see because they’re so big that brands can lose the forest for the trees. But there are some examples that can illustrate what these new normals look like and make them a little easier to spot.
Between 2002 and 2004, most of Asia was on high alert against the spread of SARS. Then Swine Flu in 2009, and Avian Flu in 2013. These epidemics touched Europe and the Americas, but lightly, with fewer cases and far less urgency. Asian countries, however, were on high alert and at high risk — one of the reasons China, Japan, and Korea have been able to respond in such a fast and methodical fashion to the COVID-19 outbreak is because of lessons learned over the last 20 years.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that much of the west missed a slowly growing subculture on the streets of China and Japan: Young people, often the most avant garde and stylish, began wearing face masks as a fashion statement. Starting off as typical one-time-use paper masks decorated with stencilled designs of eyes and moths and graffiti, they soon evolved into high-end surgical masks with designs from the hottest names in street-wear — A Bathing Ape, Heron Preston, Off-White.
As subversive and cool as these masks became, they also pointed to a cultural trend that many missed. On the crowded platforms of the Tokyo Subway, covering the face wasn’t about individuality or expression — it was a gesture of respect for the community, a willingness to deal with the discomfort of wearing a mask in order to avoid passing on contagion. That attitude, largely missing from the subways of the U.S. and Europe, made it difficult to spot this underground sensation. Brands who did, however, were able to sell luxury versions of this common staple for upwards of $300 each.
Or it might be helpful to look at a growing trend that took off in late 2018, spurred in large part by the growing unrest and challenging situation Europe has found itself in over the last few years. A growing unease at home and abroad gave people more exposure than ever to the hard work performed by first responders and a sense of dread over what the world was becoming.
By fall of 2018, this became reflected in the elite world of high fashion, as luxury brands big and small put out simultaneous collections modeled after firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, and other figures of stability in an unstable world. The new normal was scary, so people retreated into the comfort of these symbols of safety. Art imitates life, and life just really wanted someone strong to stand watch over it.
Fashion might be the glamorous end of challenges precipitating changing trends, but it’s also ephemeral and hardly “real.” But there are some very real new normals that fundamentally change the way people live, shop, and work, too. A great example is the rise of the gig economy.
The financial crisis of 2008 shook the world. It was the largest recession most people had ever experienced, and left hundreds of thousands out of work or working significantly reduced hours. Even after markets stabilized around the world, it took time for hiring to recover.
Enter Uber, Doordash, Postmates, and the like. A breakdown in the fundamental trust people had in large employers led to a shakeup in what it meant to be employed. Suddenly, all it took to have a job was access to a phone and a car. What it meant to have a job was forever changed, and all it took was some crazy kids on the West Coast recognizing that things had changed.
Whether the gig economy is good or bad in the long run is still open to debate, but it’s clear that jumping on the opportunity of a new normal created something both huge and previously unpredicted. In 2018, the gig economy represented $204 billion in gross volume, and is predicted to grow to almost $500 billion by 2023. Good or bad, this was an opportunity brought about by a major global challenge, and has resulted in an entirely new way to work for hundreds of thousands of people.
Seizing the Opportunity
Taking advantage of a new normal after a crisis gives challenger brands an opportunity to not just match, but far exceed the legacy brands they are competing against. But if these opportunities are difficult to notice and impossible to predict, how do brands jump on these openings?
Listen to the audience
Spotting an emerging trend requires listening to what brands’ audiences are saying. This goes beyond just soliciting feedback from customers. Brands need to understand their audience as a series of waves — the leading edge sets the trends, the next wave solidifies them, and the last largest wave jumps on board. So brands need to learn who is in that leading edge that their customers listen to and follow. Every audience has their set of early influencers that go on to shape the way that audience behaves, and finding them is critical to recognizing an opportunity.
Similarly, brands need to understand their audiences’ needs, and how those needs change in response to a crisis. The new normal comes with all new demands from consumers, many of which they may not even recognize themselves. When the recession of 2008 hit, no one was thinking “Man, I wish I could own and operate my own unlicensed taxi!” But consumers did want a way to earn extra money in uncertain times while waiting for the economy to recover.
The unpredictable nature of the new normal means that taking advantage of opportunities means being able to change and adapt quickly. For some companies, that may mean having some cash reserves on hand to change manufacturing lines and develop new products. For others, it may mean being willing to cut into established revenue lines in order to support new opportunities. A prime example of the latter is Amazon’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic (pun intended!) The e-commerce giant cut all non-essential shipping to ensure that essentials like food, health, and hygiene supplies made it to customers on time.
Being able to take advantage of new normal opportunities means being willing to sacrifice all of the tried and true approaches that worked in the past. Brands that are able to pivot on a dime in response to circumstances always come out stronger than brands that doggedly cling to tradition and custom. Developing the kind of company culture that allows that kind of flexibility should always be a top priority.
Commit where others hesitate
Jumping into the unknown is always terrifying. This is especially true when economic realities are making caution the most prudent course of action. But brands that don’t commit often end up having to play significant catchup to brands that do. Companies that try to slowplay new trends may end up committing resources without reaping the rewards of being a first mover.
And being a first mover is critical for brands trying to capitalize on the changes brought about by global challenges. Because these opportunities are often present in the form of a new market segment, or even an entirely new market, companies that go in first and grow large enough tend to become the defaults. To this day, people using ride-sharing apps still often say “I’ll Uber over there” — even if they’re taking a Lyft. There is a lot of power in being able to set expectations in a new market, and that requires a full commitment. That could mean investing in marketing and advertising while other companies are cutting back, or launching a product that seems risky and early, or pushing into new geographic areas while others are waiting for them to be ready.
Where Do We Go From Here?
This is all-important to keep in mind as the world braces for the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis, like many before it, will lead to unprecedented changes in consumer behavior, society, and the world at large. While it’s happening, brands should do everything in their power to focus on being powerful forces for good, helping communities in need to get through the difficult times. But when the dust clears and the world begins recovering, they need to be ready to jump on new opportunities and tackle new problems as the world comes to terms with the new normal.